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Act before racist violence spreads, US bishops urge

18 August 2017


If the President won’t name them. . . protesters outside the White House on Sunday after the Charlottesville violence

If the President won’t name them. . . protesters outside the White House on Sunday after the Charlottesville violence

THE far-right rally that took place in Charlottesville last week will spread, the Episcopal Bishops of Virginia have warned. They have urged the Church not to be mute “in the face of evil”.

They were among the hundreds of people who gathered in the city on Saturday to oppose a Unite the Right rally in which Nazi and Con­federate flags were born aloft, and fascist slogans, including “blood and soil”, were chanted.

The gathering was prompted by plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general. It was the third time in recent months that white nationalists had congregated in the city.

The Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car was driven into the anti-racist campaigners. A 20-year-old man, James Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, has been charged with her murder.

Ms Heyer’s father said this week that he forgave her killer: “I just think what the Lord said on the cross: ‘Lord forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’”

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” Susan Bro, Ms Heyer’s mother, told a memorial service on Wednesday. “Well guess what? You just magnified her.”

Two Virginia state troopers also died when their helicopter, which had been flying above the demonstrations, crashed.

“We have every indication that we will be seeing more of this,” the Viginian Bishops wrote on Monday. “Angry white supremacists seem already to be organising to bring their ugly and racist rhetoric to other towns and cities. . . Angry re­­sisters are more than ready to meet their violence with violence.

“It’s hard to imagine a time when the Church is more needed in the public square. . . Whatever we do, we may not, we must not, be quiet in the face of evil during this violent era of our lives to­­gether.”

EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF VIRGINIAFrontline: the Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Shannon S. Johnston, joins the counter-demonstration with clerical colleagues

On Friday night, as the far-right groups massed, a vigil was held at St Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church, attended by Dr Cornell West, Pro­fessor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Har­vard University, and the Revd Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and witness ministries of the United Church of Christ.

In a testimony to The New York Times, Aryn A. Frazier, a student at the university, described being “locked in a church full of people, who were singing loudly to overpower the hate-filled chants of alt-right protesters carrying torches right outside the chapel doors”.

On Saturday morning, faith lead­ers gathered at First Baptist Church before walking arm-in-arm towards Emancipation Park, where the Lee statue stands. They lined the street in front and prayed and sang, while the protesters marched.

The response of President Trump has drawn widespread condemna­tion. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides,” he said on Saturday.

Record numbers: a tweet by Barack Obama in response to the Charlottesville violence, including a quotation from Nelson Mandela alongside a photo taken at a day-care centre in 2011, has become the most popular item ever on Twitter, liked by more than three million people since it was posted on 13 August

After conceding on Monday that racism was evil, on Tuesday he repeated: “I think there’s blame on both sides and I have no doubt about it.” There were people who were not neo-Nazis or white nationalists at the rally who had been treated “absolutely unfairly” by the press. He questioned whether statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would also be removed: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”

Among those who took issue with him was the British Prime Minister. Theresa May said on Wednesday: “I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them.”

The Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington, in Vermont, the Very Revd Jeanne Finan, used her ser­mon on Sunday to urge her congre­gation to speak out “against an administration that stops barely short of condoning, if not celebrat­ing, the action of these terrorists”.

The Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, told Mt Zion 1st African Baptist Church on Sunday: “The political rhetoric in this country today is breeding bigotry.”

The Virginian Bishops called on people to “be clear about the issues”. The issue of removing Confederate monuments was “a complex one with a number of legitimate points of view”, they said, and “many Americans lovingly cling to their heritage, which provides them with pride and identity”. But Nazi and fascist symbols “are not and never have been part of the heritage and history of the American South”.

The debate about symbols of the Confederacy is close to home for the Episcopal Church. Panes bearing the Confederate flag have been removed from the stained-glass windows of Washington National Cathedral. On Monday, protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina, during a rally against racism.

Events in Charlottesville prompted reflection on the Church’s complicity in racism.

Jemar Tisby, the President of the Reformed African American Network, wrote in The Washington Post: “Despite all our efforts, some white pastors still remain silent on Sunday. They relegate racism to the status of a ‘social’ issue and not a ‘gospel’ issue. . . Leadership in churches and other Christian organisations remain all or mostly white. . . Evangelicals who prostitute the faith for political power remain in the pulpit and are given wide latitude to stir up racial resentment in the guise of ‘race neutral’ language.”

Writing for Living Church, the Revd Dr Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, asked:  “On our list of theological priorities, where exactly is the condemnation of the white supremacy that has oppressed people of color for generations?”

Anticipating the withdrawal of Charlottesville from the news cycle, he asked:  “Will the church’s conviction extend beyond America’s corporate attention deficit and amnesia? . . . If the Church truly cares about people of color, it must join in God’s work of lifting the yoke of oppression from his people. We cannot lift a burden that we do not recognise, that we do not see others bearing. We must start telling the truth. . . 

“Our prayers must be followed by extensive preaching and teaching on how the Christian faith touches on issues of race and justice, otherwise the pleas for unity lose their meaning. The goal is a unified and free people, not a unified and silent people bearing unaddressed pain.” 

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Michael Curry, spoke on Thursday of  “a sense of darkness in our land”. He described Ms Heyer as a  “martyr” and suggested that people remember  “the words and the wisdom of the martyrs of the past”. He recalled Dr Martin Luther King’s last book, published in 1967, entitled  “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” 

“The teachings, the life, the Spirit, the person, the death, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are pointing the way to the way of love, to the beloved community.”

Such phrases could sound  “nice but naive”, he acknowledged,  “maybe idealistic, but unrealistic.” But in the  “bigotry” of the words “shrieked” in Charlottesville, “we have heard the alternative to the beloved community . . . We cannot, and we must not, and we will not go there.”

‘What would Grandma Anne Make of it all?’

The Bishop of Indianapolis, the Rt Revd Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, writes:

“In days like these I can’t help but think of my grandparents. . . The hatred and violence of this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA, was all too familiar to them.

“The stories of run-ins my paternal grandparents had with the KKK were told in hushed tones so that the children would not hear — but we did. And there were places my Grandma Anne, would not visit because of those incidents. Grandma Anne was tougher than nails — ask anyone who knew her — but fear of the Klan would keep her from visiting me when I lived outside of Binghamton, NY.

“I would tell her, my faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ compelled me not to fear. It is perhaps both irony and destiny that as Bishop of the diocese of Indianapolis, I now visit churches in places where Confederate flags fly on the houses next door. I wonder all the time what Grandma Anne would make of it.

“All over our diocese, wherever the Episcopal Church is present, we offer sanctuaries of hope and communities of transformation where we learn over and over again how to die and rise again with Jesus Christ.

“This is not a dress rehearsal: the death and resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of love and light over evil and death is constant, and we must be vigilant in naming both the evil and the love that defeats it.

“The events in Charlottesville this weekend, and the demonstrations of white supremacist hatred known all too well in Indiana and every corner of these United States, show us evil without nuance.

“So let us be even more clear about our witness of love. Let our prayers be met in equal measure by our actions to dismantle systems of injustice and oppression that dehumanise and deny dignity to God’s beloved.”

Comment; feature


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